Crossing the Line
I may be naive. I wonder: Is it my problem that I am idealistic about journalism? As a photojournalist, I believe my job is to give readers a better understanding of news events with pictures. But I also believe my goal is to offer the public something more than pictures.
That idea was shattered at the newspaper where I used to work. I suggested to an editor that the paper do a story about a documentary film on violence against women. The film was about four women: one white, one black, one Latino, and me, an Asian.
I revealed I am a rape survivor.
The editor’s expression changed in that moment. I had no idea what was behind it. I thought it would be a good opportunity for the paper to localize the issue. I was doing my job.
“We have this company policy,” the editor said. “We can’t name rape victims.”
“Even if a victim is talking about it on national TV?” I asked. I felt as though someone had smacked me. “We still can’t do that.” She started explaining the origins of the policy. More than 10 years earlier, The Des Moines Register had published a series about a rape victim. Our paper decided not to do the same kind of thing, she told me. She didn’t mention that the Register’s story won the Pulitzer Prize.
After that, I started to note the stories of sexual violence in my paper. First, I saw the story of a teen who was kidnapped from her hometown in Nebraska and rescued in Montana. She was alive. The bad guy was put in jail. Good ending. Great news piece.
But it got me thinking. We detailed how the kidnapper took her from a shopping mall, how he drove her to Montana, how she called police, what conversations she had with her kidnapper to stay alive. Without the word “rape” in the story, I knew what had happened to her.
The teen didn’t tell that part of her story until she testified in the trial. An article from the trial that day treated the rape as if it were a new revelation.
“Well, think about it,” I said to my fellow photographers. “What do you think a man would do when he kidnaps a girl?” I told my colleagues we had a policy that forbids naming rape victims in the paper. They didn’t know that. Why had we never had a single conversation about it in this case?
I had more questions. Why did the editor reject my story? I was willing to tell it; that teenager wasn’t. Why did the paper hesitate to say the word “rape”? If I were white, would I have been treated differently? Was I crossing some line by being a journalist and a rape survivor?
Later, I saw the photo of two brothers in our local section. They were sexually abused by a priest and were suing the church. Their names were in the cutline.
“Did you change the policy?” I asked the editor. “If so, I think that’s great.” The editor told me this story was different. I asked her how, but no answer followed.
Finally I stopped talking about rape in the newsroom.
Not all sex crime survivors want their names published. Privacy and confidentiality do matter. At first, I was glad I was a nobody on the news. I felt dirty and shameful. The rape took away my self-esteem and sense of security. It left me in continual waves of nightmares and flashbacks. Fear dominated my body and mind. It made sense that the paper concealed my identity in the stories. I even wondered why it was necessary to have the story on the 10 o’clock news. But I knew it was important to let the public know what happened. I didn’t want anyone else to go through the same thing. But can it be a survivor’s choice to speak publicly?
Every newsroom has survivors. If a survivor is willing, can the media use her or his insight to do a better job when it comes to reporting about rape? As I meet survivors for my project, “Stand: Faces of Rape & Sexual Abuse Survivors,” I have learned that understanding the pain of my own experience is the key to getting access to those who are hurting in a shadow.
Journalists typically handle the news without getting emotionally involved. I don’t have that option with this topic. The first three photo shoots made me remember the night I was raped. My project also has made me realize that I was blind about sex crimes. I never thought I could be a victim. I believed it happened to people in certain neighborhoods. Then it happened to me.
The statistics of sex crimes stun me. Some of my best friends confessed that they were raped or sexually abused in the past and they still live with the trauma. As the youngest and the only girl in my family, I was sheltered while growing up. But is that the only reason for my blindness? Or are there other reasons for this secrecy and ignorance? Why don’t we tell these stories?
I walked down a drug-infested street in Minneapolis with a 33-year-old woman. She told me how her father made child pornography and pointed to the spot he sold the pictures, as well as her body, when she was a teenager.
In Boston, I met a 53-year-old man who said he was sexually abused by a priest. As a daughter of a church minister, I was shocked that any priest or pastor would think that God can’t see what he or she does behind a closed door.
A 36-year-old woman in Denver wept the whole time I was with her. She can never have a child because of the gang rape that tore her womb. She was 16 years old when she was attacked.
Many people tell me how brave I am. Bravery did not start my project. Many people tell me how brave I am. Bravery did not start my project. It was my stubbornness that told me to move on and not to let the rape control my life. It is my curiosity that keeps me going to find out how others get back up after rape. And it’s God who has promised to be there with every step I take.
As my project grew, I decided to leave my job at the paper to work on it full time for a while. In the same week I placed my resignation letter, I was booked for seven exhibitions and five speeches. I left the paper with a smile. I was not leaving journalism. I would still tell stories for a living.
For me, the line between journalist and survivor was unnatural. That line was dividing me in half. I need to be whole. I may be naive and idealistic about the journalism in which office politics and unwritten rules often matter more than reporting injustice or breaking taboos. But I love being a photojournalist who contributes something more than pictures. My camera saved my sanity and helped rebuild my self-esteem. My journalism helped me make the journey from rape victim to rape survivor. Being a survivor makes me a better journalist.
Now it’s time for me to give back.
Nobuko Oyabu is a photojournalist living in Omaha, Neb. She is the creator of “Stand: Faces of Rape & Sexual Abuse Survivors,” a traveling photo exhibit. She currently is devoting her time to touring with the exhibit. For more information, about these and other survivors, see her website at www.nobukoonline.com.